Fuerteventura history & geography

Church interior, Fuerteventura. Photo by Nick Haslam The least developed of the Canaries, Fuerteventura has largely escaped the indiscriminate coastal development of the other islands of the archipelago. With year round sunshine and an average temperature of 20 degrees centigrade its equable dry climate and endless beaches make it the perfect destination for vacations of all kinds, from sheltered safe beaches ideal for families with small children, to wide open bays with some of the best surfing waves in the Canaries. Rainfall is rare, for with no high mountains, the moisture laden north easterly trade wind pass unimpeded over the island. Its dry interior, a striking landscape of ancient volcanoes, dry steppe and rolling sandy hills lined with stone terraces has small picturesque villages and some of the oldest churches of the entire archipelago. The locals are used to a relaxed slow pace of life, and are friendly to visitors in a genuine unspoiled sort of way.

Map of Fuerteventura

This is the second largest island of the Canaries, located at latitude 28° 27' N, longitude: 13° 51' W and measuring 110 km (75 miles) from north to south and 20 km (15 miles) at its widest point.

Windsurfing at Playa Sotavento, Fuerteventura. Photo by Rene Egli Windsurfing And Kitesurfing Pro CenterWith a surface area of 1600 sq km (620 sq miles) Fuerteventura has a resident population of only 100,000. Most people live and work in the two tourist centers of Morro Jable and Corralejo, and in the administrative capital of Puerto Rosario in the center of the eastern coast. The southern end of the island is separated from the north by a long strip of high sand dunes - the beaches here on the eastern side are amongst the best in the entire Atlantic. Here a 3 kilometre (1.8 mile) long tidal lagoon and the strong northerly trade winds make perfect conditions for wind and kite surfing - the world Championships are held at Playa Sotavento every year. The main southern resort of Morro Jable is popular with German tourists and is fronted by a long promenade lined with hotels, a cycle and running path and a newly created marine wetland area which backs the 3 kilometre long beach of white sand.

At the northern end of the island Corralejo, once a tiny fishing village, is now a sprawling tourist town with a large range of hotels and apartment blocks. Just outside the town are spectacular dunes of sand so fine it flows like water between your toes. A protected natural park, the sheltered and endless beaches here slope gently into the sea, and are a perfect place for family and small children.

Volcano on Isla de los Lobos, Fuerteventura. Photo by Nick HaslamJust off Corralejo lies the small uninhabited island of Isla de los Lobos named after the seals which once bred on its sandy beaches.

Now a protected natural area it offers glimpses of the volcanic history of this ancient island, with a rugged interior of black lava eroded into fantastic shapes by millions of years of wind and sand erosion.

Tiny and tough flowering plants endemic to the island bring unexpected colour to the landscape, and sea water lagoons and wetlands are thronged with visiting birds migrating to Europe and back from Africa every year. The waters around the Isla de Lobos are part of the nature reserve, and offer wonderful snorkelling and diving locations.

The western coast of Fuerteventura is a wild unspoiled land of high cliffs, and deserted beaches pounded by huge waves which roll unimpeded from the distant shores of America some 4000 km ( 2,400 m) to the west. At Cofete, the 5 km beach is one of the stars of the newly created Biosphere Reserve, its virgin cliffs of volcanic rock some of the highest on the island. Walking here, it is possible to get glimpses of the days when the islands were undiscovered, inhabited only by the Majoreros, the original indigenous people of the island, thought to have come to Fuerteventura from the African mainland in the first two millennia BC.

Statues of Majorero warriors on Fuerteventura. Photo by Nick Haslam Who?
The first inhabitants of the island were known as the Majoreros - named after the original kingdom of Maxorata, at the northern end of the island. Thought to have been of Berber origin, early accounts by the first Spanish explorers describe them as a warlike fierce people.

Historians think that there were about 1000 Majoreros in total when the island was first settled by Europeans in the early 15th century, descendants of slaves brought from Mauretania in the first two millennia BC to harvest lichens much prized in the making of dyes. Today the only trace of the original Majoreros are more than 250 foot shaped carvings known as podomorphs, on the summit of the ancient volcano of Tindaya.

The first Spanish Conquistador to discover and occupy the island was the Norman Jean de Béthencourt in 1405, who quickly subdued and enslaved the indigenous Majoreros. He established the first settlement at Betancuria, in a hidden valley protected from pirate attack close the west coast, with an abundant water supply.

Miguel Darias Rodriguez, 92 year old former farmer, Fuerteventura. Photo by Nick Haslam Over the following three hundred years the island was slowly settled throughout by peasant farmers who worked the arid lands using donkeys and camels. Fuerteventura became known as the granary of the Canary islands, with wheat and corn grown on the fertile plains and on the rolling hills lined with painstakingly constructed stone terraces.

By the 18th century the island was ruled by the Coroneles - literally the colonels - local militia leaders appointed by Spain who ruled the island virtually as their private fiefdom. Their headquarters - a large imposing fortified manor house surrounded by outhouses is known as La Casa de los Coroneles and this building still stands to this day in the inland village of La Oliva.

In the early 19th century the Coroneles finally ceded their powers to the Spanish state and in 1912, along with the other islands of the archipelago Fuerteventura was run by its Cabildo - a semi autonomous council - from the administrative capital in Puerto Rosario. Life on the island was never easy, and during periods of protracted drought islanders would emigrate to the other islands or further afield to South America, Cuba and the Peninsula - as islanders call Spain.

Today, practically no farming takes place on the island and the land lies fallow, although some small scale farms use both traditional and modern irrigation methods to produce the richly flavoured tomatoes and small potatoes which are a speciality of the Canary Islands.

Central west coast of Fuerteventura. Photo by Nick Haslam The island's population mirrors its prosperity - with 11,000 registered in the census of 1900 growing to a peak of 129,000 in 2006. As a major vacation destination, with 1.4 million visitors registered in 2006, most islanders work in the tourist sector but unemployment is rising as the global recession impacts the Spanish economy. However many islanders think that the slow down in the world economy may have a long term benefit for the island, as many new planned developments which would have had a severe impact on the fragile ecology of the coast have been abandoned. Today the Patronato - the governing council of the island - is committed to sustainable tourism, and is taking measures to ensure that the island avoids the pitfalls of mass tourism experienced by other islands of the archipelago.

The recent award of Biosphere Reserve status for the entire island by UNESCO is a further accolade for Fuerteventura - and recognises the unique marine, coastal and terrestrial attributes of the island. There are plans now to make the entire western coast a National Park and so ensure that this extraordinarily beautiful and unique area remains in its virgin state for generations to come.
Miguel Darias
Miguel Darias on traditional Fuerteventura life
"I am happy here in my village - I know everyone and it's quiet - it's so peaceful here in the hills" [2:45]

Valley below Betancuria, Fuerteventura. Photo by Nick HaslamFuerteventura is the oldest of the Canary islands, first created between 30 and 70 million years ago when huge volcanic eruptions spewed lava through a hot spot between the tectonic plates of South America and Africa. The island of lofty volcanoes stood alone in the Atlantic for millions of years until more eruptions created the remaining islands of the archipelago. The last active volcano fell silent 4 million years ago on Fuerteventura and the high mountains have long eroded away, the ancient volcanic plugs and craters still standing as jagged hills of black rock amongst wide sweeping landscapes of dry steppe. The highest point at Mt Jandia is barely 800 metres (2,600 feet) above sea level and so the moisture-laden north easterly trades pass unimpeded, creating an arid climate with rain falling rarely each year. But the dry semi-desert landscape has its own rugged beauty, with tiny villages and hamlets of small flat roofed houses scattered across the plains of the interior.

On the eastern coast between the larger tourist towns, small fishing villages still retain their original character, with boats drawn up on beaches of both white and black lava sand. To the west the wild coast is more than 100 kilometres ( 60 miles) long and is virtually uninhabited, the rugged high cliffs streaked with ancient strata and folds of rock. The island is a geologists paradise, for practically every volcanic rock formation known to man can be seen, with some of the oldest rock on earth clearly visible in the chaotic jumble of folded strata and ancient uplifted sea shores. More than 50 sites of paleontological interest have been mapped on the island - giving scientists the chance to study and understand the complex climatic changes which have taken place over millions of years.

See our pick of things to see and do in Fuerteventura
Responsible Travel would like to thank the Fuerteventura tourist board for their sponsorship of this guide
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